A person executed by stoning by order of the court was subsequently hanged, but his body was not to be left hanging overnight “for he that is hanged is a reproach to God” (Deut. 21:23).
Why does this shame God? Because, says Rashi, even a criminal is a human being with dignity – even towards a criminal there is a duty to love your neighbour as yourself (Lev. 19:18) – and to leave his body hanging offends the God in Whose image he and every human being is made.
Rashbam suggests that the Hebrew word which is usually translated “God” can be understood here in its alternative sense of judges.
When the public see the criminal’s body they may well curse the judges who sentenced him to death; they would accuse the judges of not trying hard enough to find reasons to prevent the accused from being executed.
The Vilna Ga’on has another approach altogether. He points out that Biblical Hebrew sometimes uses the word “God” to supply the sense of a superlative.
Thus Nimrod was a mighty warrior “unto God”, i.e. an exceedingly great warrior; Nineveh was a great city “unto God” – even in God’s terms. As a result, leaving a man hanging overnight is to be understood as an extreme disgrace.
This interpretation may derive support when one examines the context. The verse continues, “You shall not defile the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance”. Note that the passage speaks of “the Lord your God”, as do other verses in the parashah – see, for example, Deut. 21:10 and 22:5.
The use of the name “God” on its own in our verse without the additional name “the Lord” would be unusual, so if “God” appears without any qualification it may be meant in a different sense, as the Vilna Ga’on suggests.